The inefficiencies of joy

The following is from Joseph A. Tainter’s paper Social complexity and sustainability (2006):

Subsistence farmers also tend to underproduce, so that labor is underutilized and inefficiently deployed. Posposil (1963) observed Kapauku Papuans of New Guinea, for example, working only about 2 h a day at agriculture. Robert Carneiro found that Kuikuru men in the Amazon Basin spend 2 h each day at agricultural work and 90 min fishing. The remainder of the day is spent in social activities or at rest. With a little extra effort such people could produce much more than they do (Sahlins, 1972)


Even under the harsh conditions in which they lived, these Russian peasants underproduced. Those able to produce the most actually underproduced the most. They valued leisure more highly than the marginal return to extra labor.

Now, I’m normally a fan of Tainter’s thinking, more clearly than anybody else he has outlined how impossible a position our society is in regarding sustainability and energy use, but this quote highlights just how inhumane modern thinking has become.

Walk into your average pub and ask everybody in there if they’d be willing to accept a ten to fifteen years shorter life expectancy in exchange for a lifetime where you’d only have to work two to four hours a day, half of which is fishing.

I’d bet that most of the people in there would think you’re either describing a paradise or their ideal retirement plan.

And that’s if you buy into the idea that you’d have a much shorter life expectancy. It’s likely that the life expectancy of an adult wouldn’t be that different from that of an adult in the States, for example. What would probably skew the numbers would be a high infant mortality rate.

People want to ‘underproduce’ and lead a life of leisure.

This is what modernity and industrialisation has brought us: more work and less free time.

Of course technology and science has brought us a lot of joy, but the end goal should be to create a society where nobody has to work more than four hours a day and can spend most of their time at leisure, where being more productive means having more time for fun.

That’s what we should be aiming for, not a society that tries to maximise the productive value of every single person, where we’re treated like nothing more than cogs in the economic machine.

2 thoughts on “The inefficiencies of joy

  1. The only way you could have a “leisurely society” is if you had some sort of totally automated production system where human labor was totally meaningless, which is probably not possible. Automation, and mechanization and artificial intelligence certainly have the potential to significantly lower the work week and raise productivity, and in a different economic system (not a capitalist one) spread the fruits of it to everyone or at least the majority, but never have a totally leisurely society, if that’s even desirable.

    A more agrarian or “primitive” society would mean more work and less play, to put it simply. The deep green primitive fantasies are simply out of touch with reality, but then again this shows through their doomer die off fantasies (which is pretty disturbing given how much they want that to happen), granola chomping new age fruitcake beliefs, impending “peak oil”, etc, etc.

    • First off: the main point of the post is to point out how separated the value system of intellectuals and academics is from the rest of us. Most people wouldn’t call leisure time in observed societies ‘underproduction’ but that’s exactly what economists and academics do.

      Second: I don’t know what country you live in, but the UK/US/Iceland regime of massive overwork is very much the extreme among western civilisation. Most of the Nordic countries, for example, work a lot less per week, have more leisure time, and are much happier on the whole. They are very much leisurely societies when compared to the US, the UK, or Iceland while remaining very capitalist (not libertarian, but that’s not the only model for capitalism anyway). They aren’t the ‘four hours a day’ utopia I paint in the post but they have the right priorities.

      A more leisurely society does not have to be a green primitive fantasy or even the science fiction fantasy you paint there.

      Thirdly: in the UK and the US most of the productivity gains of modern society have gone straight into the pockets of the 1% while the main workforce sees no gain. If anything their lot is worse and they have to work more since pay has been stagnating since the late sixties. In more equitable societies (where the Gini coefficient of income distribution is lower) such as the Nordic ones, productivity gains means more leisure time for most people, because choosing more leisure time over more pay is the rational choice when you’ve got family and friends to spend it with.

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